New Horizons Spaceship Encounters Ultima Thule, the World Awaits Historic Photo

A mock-up of the Chang'e-4 lunar lander

What makes Ultima Thule interesting to scientists is that is part of a population of "cold classical" Kuiper Belt objects whose orbits, with low inclinations and eccentricities, suggest that they are pristine objects unaltered since the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has survived humanity's most distant exploration of another world.

Scientists believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons.

Nasa will reveal its early findings at a press conference held at 2.45pm United Kingdom time.

Scientists did not want to interrupt observations as New Horizons swept past Ultima Thule - described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet - so they delayed radio transmissions. The spacecraft was approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million km) from Ultima Thule when this image was taken on December 30, 2018.

NASA has described the achievement as a "leap for humankind" because no spacecraft has ever "circled so close to such a small space object - one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit". New Horizons was set to take a total of 900 highest-resolution images throughout the flyby and the mission team will know in time how many of those images clearly show Ultima Thule.

"Go New Horizons!" said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment at 12:33am (1.33pm Hong Kong time) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock four.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years. Images of the object taken just before the encounter will grow to a few more pixels, transmitted back to Earth at the speed of light in about six hours. Scientists say it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

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The nerdiest New Year's party in the solar system is happening 4billion miles from Earth, where a lone, intrepid explorer is en route to the furthest object humans have ever explored.

The flyby comes three-and-a-half years after New Horizons swung past Pluto and beamed back the first ever close-up images of the dwarf planet.

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises. Its name means "distant places beyond the known world".

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

Wherever we've explored in the Solar System, we've found the unexpected.

In images taken Sunday night, Ultima Thule appeared as little more than an elongated white smear against the darkness of space.

"This is just a first glimpse of what is rapidly going to get better from here on out, " Spencer said.

The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

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